on November 19, 2006
Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today starts off with three theology lectures for a course on universal vs. particular Churches for bishops in Brazil, followed by an address to the Synod of Bishops on the priesthood, a talk on ecclesial reform to conclude an annual meeting in Rimini, and finally a homily preached at a seminary in Philadelphia which is added to "clarify once more the spiritual orientation of the whole book" (from the Foreword). All of these events took place in 1990, but the material is as relevant, if not more so, today.
The stated goal in the Foreword of offering "a sort of primer of Catholic ecclesiology" to "bring clarity and help in the crisis of ecclesial consciousness" is fulfilled in spades. The nature of the book and the audiences it was directed toward originally does not allow Cardinal Ratzinger to go into the level of detail I would have like to have seen, but nevertheless he is quite successful at giving the reader a good overview of Catholic ecclesiology, particularly as it relates to the roles of bishops, priests, and the nature of true reform in the Church.
In the first chapter he establishes the origin of the Church in Jesus, of course, by using not only Gospel testimony, but also Paul's doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the beginnings of Church functioning in the Acts of the Apostles.
Chapter Two deals with Petrine primacy and the unity of the Church. The author acknowledges the ecumenical difficulty of this question, but goes on to solidly show the status of Peter as "Rock", as head of the Twelve, and as keeper of the "keys" which he deals with at the greatest length of the three points. Succession is one of the areas that would have been worth exploring more, but his appeal to early Christian writers Irenaeus and Eusebius is effective, and he hits a home run with this observation: "[I]t is impossible to avoid the idea of succession once the word is transmitted in Scripture is considered to be a sphere open to the future" (p. 67).
The next chapter gets to the heart of the theology lectures: the universal and particular Churches and the role of the bishop. Unsurprisingly, the Eucharist is seen as the heart of ecclesiology - it is the unifying factor. Orthodox and Protestant views are contrasted with each other and the Catholic approach, and the conclusion is reached that "communio is catholic, or it simply doesn't exist at all" (p. 82). The bishopric is traced back to Peter, James, and Paul, and then as now, the bishop is called to be a missionary of the whole Church, not just his local Church, and he must be ready to suffer as his Lord did.
The essence of the priesthood is the topic of the fourth chapter. This is a very full chapter. He bemoans the fact that a new look back tried to justify the priesthood by looking at its biblical roots and deeming it a functional role only. He provocatively states that this view was reached by Reformation-era arguments and exegesis largely nourished by Reformation presuppositions. But while Cardinal Ratzinger recognized that the ministries seemed ill-defined in the early Church, he sees the foundation of ministerial office in apostleship: Jesus sent the apostles and gave them everything they had - he conferred the mission and himself as mission. Apostolic succession is not treated in depth, but he uses solid passages from Acts, Peter, and Corinthians to stress the sacramental nature of bishops and priests. He closes the chapter with some deeply moving reflections of a more spiritual nature (a must read for all priests).
The last chapter deals with renewal of the Church, contrasting futile and authentic reform. It is the best chapter in the book and one I'd like to get in the hands of every Catholic or anyone who wants to understand the pope's authentic view of reform and renewal. A democratic Church that so many long for will never work: "A church based on human resolutions becomes a merely human church. It is reduced to the level of the makeable, of the obvious, of opinion. Opinions replace faith. And in fact, in the self-made formulas of faith with which I am acquainted, the meaning of the words `I believe' never signifies anything beyond `we opine'" (pp. 139-140). True reform is based on a full faith itself in the freedom that the Lord offers which is our true freedom. Reform begins with each person through personal morality (liberation from sin, not guilt), forgiveness (imaging Jesus), and expiation (purification through pain and suffering in communion with Christ).
The epilogue continues the theme of the last chapter, emphasizing the dangers of "factional strife" within the Church, instead calling us to be "coworkers of God" (it is clear where he came up with his episcopal motto "Fellow worker in the truth").
This book is relatively short at 165 pages but very rich. It is worth getting for everyone who wants to understand the authentic mind of the Church as enunciated by the current pontiff.